US rocket explodes after launch

An unmanned supply rocket bound for the International Space Station has exploded shortly after its launch from the US state of Virginia.

Antares, built by Orbital Sciences Corp, combusted seconds after leaving the seaside launch pad at Wallops Flight Facility.

The cause of the cargo ship malfunction has yet to be determined. The initial planned launch of the spacecraft on Monday was delayed due to a yacht in the surrounding danger zone.

The flight was expected to be the third contracted mission with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The rocket was due to carry nearly 5,000lb (2,200kgs) of supplies to six astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

It included equipment for astronauts to conduct tests on blood flow to the human brain and to analyse meteors.

There was also equipment for experiments to examine the growth of pea shoots in orbit and how the body’s immune system reacts to space travel. More than 1,300lb (600kg) of food was on board.

We will understand what happened, hopefully soon, and we’ll get things back on track,” said Frank Culbertson, executive vice-president of Orbital Sciences.

“We’ve all seen this happen in our business before, and we’ve all seen the teams recover from this, and we will do the same.”

No-one was injured, said Mr Culbertson, and an investigation team was going through the data to try to establish the cause.

He added it was possible his company’s staff had triggered the rocket’s destruct mechanism after the launch went wrong, but that he was not certain.

The examination of debris around the site would begin on Wednesday morning, Mr Culbertson said. But he urged locals to avoid the crash area as the rocket had been carrying “hazardous materials”.

Coincidentally, Russia’s space agency conducted its own launch to the Space Station on Wednesday.

One line of inquiry will surely focus on the AJ-26 engines used to lift the rocket away from the pad, says BBC science correspondent Jonathan Amos.

“These are actually modified Russian-built power units that were originally developed for the ill-fated Soviet Moon rocket, the N-1,” Mr Culbertson added.

Credit: BBC